The Chicago premiere of Red opened at Goodman Theatre last night and, due to its instant popularity, will be extended until October 30, 2011.
Centered on 20th century abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, Red details the painter’s artistic and philosophic struggles born from a 1958 commission to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. Ken, a fictional aspiring artist, is hired by Rothko for a two-year period to assist in this endeavor. Together, the two prime canvases and argue about the definitions of art and tragedy.
More realistic than Stephen Sondeim’s Sunday in the Park with George yet vastly less intriguing and ironic than Tom Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase, Red fails to break any new ground when telling the tale of the tortured artist. It confirms the stereotype of the self-centered painter in the expected setting of his art studio. Certainly, it’d be more refreshing and equally authentic to watch a fictional account of Roy Lichtenstein hanging out with Robert Rauschenberg at his Captiva home in Florida.
But what is refreshing about Red is its humor. The play successfully delivers enough comic lines to offset the more serious moments which come off as pretentious, particularly when punctuated by long pauses that kill the play’s pace as do the repeated times when speechless actors stand and look off into the distance, thinking.
While Rothko’s claim may be true, that thinking is 90% of painting, it is about as exciting to view as watching paint dry—which literally occurs on stage. After which, Rothko silently thinks again as Ken washes his hands, wherein the workable sink steals the scene. Indeed, Todd Rosenthal’s set is so excellently executed it often upstages the actors.
That’s not to say John Logan’s writing is lacking. The screenwriter of Gladiator and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street provides his characters with more than enough material. Sometimes too much. But even with the superfluous backstory about Ken’s murdered parents which serves as the proverbial Chekov gun that never goes off, there are interesting (albeit dated) ideas of art presented for debate.
Logan said he was “like Ken,” which may be why the character (passionately played by Patrick Andrews) is the more empathetic of the two. Edward Gero’s Mark Rothko lacks the charm to seduce audiences into forgiving him for his bombastic, egotistical manner. He plays the bully without offering any cracks in the armor so viewers, like Ken, cannot get a glimpse at his vulnerability and insecurity, which ultimately leaves little reason for concern when he realizes his time as an artist has come and gone.
In fact, Logan gives Ken such convincing ammunition, the play arguably makes the case that Rothko’s work cannot stand on its own; that it does need someone standing alongside it, explaining its merit.
Oddly, this doesn’t really matter because the play is just as much, if not more, Ken’s coming-of-age story—building to the climax when Rothko finally fires him. Without revealing the reasons for the dismissal here, this moment is the play’s payoff.
In the end, Red is appropriately moving and often amusing. It is neither shocking nor tragic. It is safely provocative and nice to look at. “It is fine”—a sentiment character Rothko despises, but one that will satisfy theater audiences.